Darkness fell over the São Paulo skyline. Like most cities, dusk brings the evening commute, but this one is a little different. One by one, all across the business district, helicopters lifted off buildings and roared into the humid night sky.
São Paulo has one of the largest private helicopter fleets in the world. Usually they are ferrying wealthy businessmen home, but sometimes a trip can include discreet female companionship and a hop to a nearby club. It has been this way for years. When the city still allowed electronic billboards, people said it reminded them of the movie Blade Runner.
“My favorite time to fly is at night, because the sensation is equaled only in movies or in dreams,” said one local businessman. “The lights are everywhere, as if I were flying within a Christmas tree.”
The view is nice, but the real reason is more prosaic. Like the future dystopia of Blade Runner, life is more dangerous on the ground. Criminals make a good living kidnapping business executives or members of their family. Fear has driven a similar business in bullet-proof cars.
The city is no less dangerous for the poor in the favelas, but their lives are worth a lot less. Some say that nearby Rio de Janeiro is using secret sniper teams to take out suspected criminals from afar. Anyone seen carrying a gun is a potential target — shoot to kill.
Such overwhelming disparities of wealth and poverty help define Rio and São Paulo, but it is not much different in the other mega cities like Lima, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City. This is the stark reality of Latin America, but it is also more than that. It is a window on America’s future. Read more